International Women’s Day 2019

Published: 8 March 2019

The theme of International Women’s Day 2019 is #BalanceforBetter. Here, our commissioner Emma Martins reflects on how ensuring a balance should never be about appearances, it should be about allowing everyone to contribute, for the benefit of everyone.

International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911. In the years since, women’s roles and rights have been completely transformed across most, although sadly not all, of the world.

As a child of the 1970s I have, I think, been very lucky to benefit from the foundations laid by the early pioneers of women’s rights and whatever choices we make as women of the modern era we should all reflect on the sacrifices made that have allowed us the freedom to make those choices.

For much of my working life I have worked in the field of data protection and it has often struck me how well balanced this area is. Some of the most influential people working in data protection regulation today are women. Two such examples are Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner for the UK, and Helen Dixon, the Data Protection Commissioner for Ireland. Both of these women are centre stage at a time when hugely important questions around data governance, sovereignty, ethics and autonomy (amongst many others) are being examined. The answers will influence our direction socially and economically for decades to come. There has never been a more important time to ensure individuals who have the ability to engage intelligently and robustly with these challenges are tasked with their oversight.

I am familiar with Elizabeth and Helen’s approach and work and have seen first-hand the respect and confidence they command. I do not doubt that they have faced the same challenges that many women face, but in all the conversations I have ever heard relating to the way they approach their critical roles, I do not recall any reference made to their gender. Indeed, I have always been immensely proud to work in a professional community in which such inspiring women are recognised and celebrated.

This is a challenging profession that I have always found to be both intellectually stimulating and enormously rewarding. The fact that the conversations, discussions, disagreements (mostly friendly!) that those of us working in data protection are a part of almost always involve a mix of cultures, genders, nationalities and age is wonderful and inspiring. I do not know of any woman working in this field that considers her voice, or the voice of women more broadly, to be the only voice worthy of an audience. But what I do know is that, almost without exception, those women bring something unique and positive to the conversation. Unlike many other areas of regulation, data protection is fundamentally a human concern. It goes to the very heart of questions of autonomy, dignity and rights. Deliberations around such matters will be richer for involving all of us, recognising the importance of an emotionally intelligent, as well as legal, analysis.

The new data protection legislation gives regulators greater powers than ever before. At our office we have built the foundations of delivering the new data protection regime around ethical principles. We have done this because we believe strongly that ethics is important if we are to live lives of integrity and honesty, recognising that with those powers come responsibilities. An ethical approach also points us towards an equality – both in the way we treat each other and importantly, the way we treat the community we are there to serve. True equality means giving people equal opportunity and equal respect as much as it is about ensuring equal scrutiny and expectations. This is not about tokenism, this is about genuinely recognising and valuing an individual for what they are able to accomplish.

I want our office to consist of committed professionals who do not feel any more or less a part of the team by virtue of their age, role, gender or anything else. We all bring different strengths to our working environment. I am lucky enough to work with colleagues that are all committed to delivering the highest standards. Individually we have much to offer, but collectively we become so much more.

Looking outside the world of data protection we are seeing huge strides being taken in the corporate world to balance the make-up of boards including encouraging more women to take up roles.

Ensuring a balance, not just in business, but in all walks of life is not about appearances, it is about allowing all people a seat at the table, for the benefit of everyone.

I believe it is impossible to avoid the difficulty of juggling work and home life for working women. But, for sure, women are more than capable of doing both well if we are part of a society that acknowledges this reality and is supportive.

Michelle Obama once said – ‘No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half its citizens.’

I would like to think that in all areas of our lives, the motivation to ensure equality and inclusion is simply because it is the right and ethical thing to be doing. Even if we cannot convince everyone of that truth, there is no denying that providing for and supporting women in the workplace will lead to more successful and happier organisations and in turn a flourishing of the place we live in and love.